Pocantico Lake's Rich History
POCANTICO LAKE HISTORY
Naturalists have called Pocantico Lake and the wetlands surrounding it one of the most pristinely beautiful and historically important landscapes in the entire Northeast. It’s continued existence is a reassuring reminder that the natural beauty and wildlife that once defined all of Westchester County can be preserved as part of a balanced and environmentally conscientious future, but only if we commit to the rational protection of these last, glorious slices of our local wilderness heritage.
The Pocantico River above the lake, and Pocantico Lake itself (comprising 70 acres on the edge of Briarcliff and Mount Pleasant), remain in many ways as quiet and pristine as when the indigenous Algonquin people named it Pocan-teco (“the river that runs between two hills”) in antiquity. When Henry Hudson arrived in September of 1609 to explore the river valley later named for him, his crew took note of the quiet but extraordinary natural beauty of the hills and rivers surrounding “Mount Pleasant.” That same sentiment was later, famously shared by revered American author Washington Irving in his masterpiece “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” describing the uniquely scenic beauty and serenity of the land on which Pocantico Lake sits as a “little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world.”
In 1886, the Pocantico Water-Works Company began construction on the current dam and associated reservoir. Until 1977, Pocantico Lake was the primary water supply for New Rochelle and surrounding municipalities. In 1977 it transition into an Emergency Reservoir, maintaining its ever-important status for drinking water supply in Westchester.
During the 1980s the entire watershed was threatened by a proposed housing development. Residents feared the loss of this natural resource while government officials recognized the need to protect the water supply. As community voices were heard, both Westchester County and the Town of Mt. Pleasant issued resolutions protecting Pocantico Lake from any future development.
In 1990 the County designated the entire area, including the lake and the land surrounding it, a Critical Environmental Area (CEA). In 1992, Westchester County purchased 164 acres of land on the eastern bank and the entire lake in order to ensure its preservation for future generations.
Because of the County’s foresight, Pocantico Lake County Park remains today fully wooded, and serves as home to myriad species of birds, amphibians and mammals including breeding pairs of ospreys, blue herons, egrets, a variety of owls, and the highly endangered Kentucky warbler. Snapping turtles, frogs, toads, and trout populate the small lake, and fawns, minks, skunks and raccoons are among the many animals often seen along the river’s banks.
Residents from all over Westchester flock to the park as families hike and fish, nature photographers record its beauty, bird watchers capture migratory species, and thousands of local residents use the quietude of the lake’s surroundings to refresh themselves during the difficult times in which we live. The Village of Briarcliff Manor has embraced the northern shore as a legacy nature trail, and millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on reconstructing the berm on the southern shore. In the process, Pocantico Lake Park has become emblematic of Westchester’s commitment to protect the few remaining, wild places like these for the benefit of the entire community, and all who live in it.
Now, however, a proposed building project risks devastating the western shore of the lake and threatens to destroy all that has been preserved.
In June of 2021, a proposal to build over thirty homes on the most pristine and heavily wooded area of all --the lake’s prime avian breeding habitat on its northwestern shore-- has been submitted to government agencies in Mount Pleasant. The plan as presented will involve the equivalent of strip mining one of the hills between which the Pocantico River flows. It will blight views from all other carefully preserved vantage points, destroy acres of trees, obliterate wildlife and their breeding grounds, dump a multitude of toxins into the lake as runoff, and add to local traffic, congestion and general environmental degradation of nearby wetlands and vulnerable wildlife populations. To place this rare oasis of unspoiled beauty, already the subject of protective investment by its surrounding Villages, Westchester County, and the US Government, in mortal danger for the sake of housing that could easily be constructed in a less fragile location is inconsistent with the history of preserving the lake and would ruin a County park used by thousands. There are better ways to move forward.